The Trouble With Travellers by Frankie Gaffney

The Trouble With Travellers – an article by Dublin author Frankie Gaffney has received much interest this week.  It’s an article that pulls together various strands and up to date research and we are publishing it here for reference.


Frankie Gaffney writes on on 5th Sep 2016:

Primitive, unruly, unkempt, nomadic, prone to thievery and feuding — they ride horses without saddles or stirrups — they’re clannish, ignorant, dirty, lawless and violent.

This is how the English described the Irish people for almost a millenium.

In this the centenary year of 1916, the Irish nation and State wallowed in self-pity over this treatment — and enthusiastically celebrated our violent rejection of it.

It is beyond irony that right to the present day we visit prejudice and racism on our own citizens from the Travelling community in precisely the same terms once used against us.

A barbarous people

“Their want of civilization, shown both in their dress and mental culture, makes them a barbarous people… Exceedingly averse to civil institutions, they lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new… In riding, they neither use saddles, nor boots, nor spurs… Abandoning themselves to idleness, and immersed in sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil…”

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

But this is not from one of the many sensational newspaper articles denigrating Travellers in the Ireland of today, this is from a 12th-century manuscript, Topographia Hiberniae, that was written by a courtier and scholar, Giraldus Cambrensis.

Like all such dehumanising narratives, it was composed with the distinct aim of dominating and dispossessing the people it described.

Indeed, Cambrensis followed the work shortly after with Expugnatio Hibernica — a celebratory account of King Henry II’s invasion of Ireland.

Echoes of these events resound.

It is more than symbolic that at the “Reclaim 1916” event (a commemoration “for the people, by the people”) a traditional Traveller wagon was shamefully prevented by Gardaí on the day from joining the parade as planned.

The current focus on 1916 might lead us into thinking rejection of English tyranny is a modern phenomenon, but this is not so. There has always been resistance to these injustices — militarily, but also diplomatically.

In 1317, the Irish Chieftains penned their “Remonstrance” to the Pope, bemoaning (among other things) the fact that Irish lives were not valued as much as English lives.

While such a state of affairs might belong in the 14th century, it sadly persists.

In June of 2015, six Irish students were killed when a balcony they were partying on collapsed in the university town of Berkeley California.

It is suspected that poor construction or maintenance were at least partly to blame.

Just a few months later that year, ten Irish Travellers perished in a fire.

Overcrowding, due to lack of space and inadequate provision of housing, has been cited as a cause of the death toll.

Five of those who died were children under the age of ten. There were glaring discrepancies in reactions to these two tragedies.

A New York Times piece about the Berkeley tragedy made reference to bad behaviour and drunkenness among Irish J-1 students.

It was slammed for insensitivity, and provoked a massive outcry from a variety of public figures. Officialdom was not silent either — the Irish Ambassador to the USA wrote to the paper and registered a complaint.

The article even prompted a vitriolic condemnation from former President Mary McAleese.

The language McAleese used in her open letter is telling:

“Today in Ireland we are hanging our heads in shock and sorrow at the needless deaths of six of our brightest and best young adults . . . the vast majority [of J-1 students] have been a credit to Ireland and only the very tiniest minority have not.”

Nobody was so enthusiastic in eulogising the victims of the Carrickmines fire.

McAleese and the other high-powered public figures who condemned coverage of the Berkeley tragedy (in the strongest possible terms) weren’t to be heard so robustly defending the Travelling community when they were grossly slandered in a variety ofmedia following Carrickmines.

While it is likewise a small minority of Travellers who engage in bad behaviour, this defense was not offered by our establishment for them — nor, predictably but sadly, were the young children who died in the fire to be declared among “our best”.

This is not paranoid “victim-complex” thinking, or impressionistic “what-aboutery”. There is emerging empirical evidence to confirm this.

A pioneering study by Dr Fergal Quinn and Dr Elaine Vaughan is currently underway at University of Limerick, and looks set to demonstrate conclusively that there was stark media bias in this coverage.

Using linguistic techniques, they analysed articles in our national daily newspapers.

One striking aspect of the data they collected was unusually high incidences of the words “but” and “however” after the word “tragedy” in articles covering Carrickmines.

The study continues, but the fact such a high number of journalists felt the need to qualify the fact that a fire which killed ten human beings was “a tragedy” speaks volumes.


Predictably, worse was to be found in the comments sections.

The actually had to shut theirs down, but even that didn’t prevent people from venting their hate.

Journalist Gene Kerrigan has written powerfully about his shock, as comments such as “So sad” (posted before the thread was closed), were given a thumbs down by 268 people.

It is shocking that anyone could be so callous as to reject an expression of condolence in the wake of such a tragedy — but for hundreds to do so on all such comments is terrifying.

“Shame on you,” McAleese scolded the New York Times in outrage, but their article was mild and respectful in comparison to how the distraught Travelling coommunity were slandered and degraded in our press.

Incredibly, even worse treatment than this media denigration was to face the grieving Carrickmines families and survivors.

The Travelling community not only had to contend with vicious slurs, but in a disgusting and despicable development there were actual protests to prevent the survivors being temporarily accommodated nearby.

Let this sink in for a second: these are not hurtful words, or inappropriately timed references to misbehaviour.

This is people taking to the street and breaking the law to blockade a road, with the sole aim of preventing a devastated group of people from seeking shelter after an unconscionably horrific tragedy — the most lethal fire in this country since the Stardust disaster.

Is this 21st Century Ireland?

It feels more like Alabama in the 1950s.

To compound such a sickening response from Irish society (and confirm the apathy of the establishment), An Taoiseach Enda Kenny refused to meet representatives of the Travellers’ rights group Pavee Point following the fire.

“A lawlesse people, Brigants  hight of yore,
That never usde to live by plough nor spade,
 But fed on spoile and booty, which they made
 Upon their neighbours, which did nigh them border…”

While the 16th-century epic poem The Faerie Queen (from which the above verse is taken) is renowned as a literary masterpiece, such descriptions of the Irish seem shockingly anachronistic and insulting.

Yet, after 400 years of “progress”, such vile stereotyping of Travellers is perpetuated with impunity.

Among the reasons cited by those who opposed housing for the Carrickmines survivors was the fear of “criminality”.

The press must take a large share of the responsibility for fermenting this prejudice.

Who ever saw a newspaper headline that read “Settled people in violent feud“?

If there are higher incidences of violence or criminality among the Travelling Community — and this is more in doubt than the fact that there is skewed and exaggerated coverage of such matters — then who is to blame?

The fact is that, in any relationship, it is the side with the most power that must take the most responsibility. The Travelling Community has been comprehensively denied power in Ireland.

The upper house of our parliament, the Seanad, retains the majority of its seats (46 out of 60 in total) for the election of minority interest groups.

Seats are allocated to panels from agriculture, industry, labour and other sectors —and, of course, the universities elect their own senators.

The Travelling Community are a group with unique (and urgent) needs.

They have suffered the most harmful prejudice and persecution since the inception of the State.

Neither do they have high-powered and influential lobbyists outside (but with access to) the Oireachtas like the interests already represented in the Seanad — yet Travellers are unrepresented.

Needless to say, this issue is not on the agenda for Fine Gael’s much-trumpeted (but lesser-spotted) Seanad reforms.

Travellers comprise .6% of the population of this country.

However, Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was the first, and remains the only ever, member of the Oireachtas to come from a Traveller family.

What percentage of Senators, TDs — and indeed Taoisigh — hail from the exclusive minority who attend South Dublin’s private schools?

The Proclamation of 1916 promised to cherish all the children of the nation equally. This has been very far from the reality.

It is a disgrace that one of the most vulnerable and persecuted groups in our society is left to fend for themselves, while already powerful groups such as commercial interests and university graduates are extended further privilege through guaranteed special representation in our parliament.

Furthermore, there is just as strong a case to be made for designated Dáil seats to represent Travellers too.

They certainly can be said to form a non-geographic constituency — almost by definition. The Travelling Community is identifiable by the very fact they are dispersed across the island while maintaining cohesion as a single people with a homogenous culture.

This is in contrast to settled people, who vary more noticeably in dialect and culture from one location to another.

By what virtue can we assert that the only rubric for granting people suffrage as a community is the fact they all live in one place?

Again, echoes of how the English treated us resound: “You would not confide free representative institutions to the Hottentots [savages]”, Lord Salisbury said in 1886, opposing Home Rule for the Irish.

If a community is not to be given representation, what right have we to demand they obey the laws we impose upon them?

When they have had no say in the writing of legislation, what moral imperative can there be for them to abide by these laws?

On the subject of the law, the key feature of “justice” — if the word is to mean anything — is that it should be dispensed without prejudice.

This is not the case in Ireland.

For example, a Mr Justice Seamus Hughes not only felt comfortable describing Travellers as “Neanderthal men . . . abiding by the laws of the jungle”, but subsequently refused to apologise.

Indeed he went on to stoutly defend his comments.

Again, this language has its perfect symmetry in English portrayals of the Irish. In the famine-era historian James Froude described the Irish as “more like squalid apes than human beings”.

As shocking as such historical incidents of racism may be, we still — to this day — live in a country where a judge can go so far as to direct the word “knacker” at defendants in court — during sentencing — and retain his position.

What would happen if an American judge were to blithely use the word “nigger” in the course of a criminal hearing?

There would be riots on the street, and justifiably. The fact these incidents do not engender outrage throughout our citizenry proves just how deep-seated, widespread — and, worst of all, socially acceptable — anti-Traveller prejudice is among the general population.

The parallels might already seem uncanny, but we are yet to consider language. Irish is not the only language that is indigenous to this island.

The languages of the Travelling community go by a variety of names: Shelta, Gammon, Cant, among others.

These native tongues, which are almost certainly endangered, have yet to be fully studied and recorded.

Government figures confirm spending on the Irish language and Gaeltacht for 2016 will be €234 million.

There is no available figure for allocated funds to be spent on Traveller languages, but I am willing to bet it is very close to zero.

We hold the Traveller languages in the same sort of disdain the English held our native tongue.

No comprehensive programme exists to document these languages before they perish or become diluted and, of course, they are not on the curriculum of our schools.

No State documents are made available in these languages, and no State business may be carried out through them.

“What need?” you may ask, “surely all Travellers speak English?”

Precisely the same can be said of the Irish language — there are no Irish monoglots left either — yet millions are spent on translation services.

There is no coherent argument for providing such services for Irish language speakers while wholly neglecting our other indigenous languages — those of the Travelling community.

I am not advocating that the same ineffective, inefficient and often disastrous approach that has been applied to Irish is applied to Traveller languages.

I am pointing out the utter disregard in which Traveller culture is held by comparison to the culture of settled peoples.

While Irish is a compulsory part of our school curricula, most people in Ireland aren’t even aware that Traveller languages exist.

The usual counter to all this is that Traveller languages are merely derivative variations of Irish, English or a combination of both.

This riposte does not hold up to scrutiny. ALL languages are derived from another language — English and Irish, for example, share the same root, both ultimately tracing their ancestry to Proto-Indo-European (hence the similarity of common phrases such as “one, two three” and “aon, dó, trí”).

While the various forms of Hiberno-English are also indigenous to Ireland, they are dialects rather than languages.

The acid test to distinguish a dialect from a language is mutual intelligibility (someone from Newcastle can understand someone from Wexford, demonstrating that both ways of speaking remain part of the same language).

Traveller languages are not readily understood in this way, they must be learned separately, marking them as separate from Irish and English both.

The neglect of the rich cultural heritage enshrined within these languages is a national disgrace — and, if not addressed, will be a loss not just to the Travelling Community, but to us all.

Or are we to hope that Travellers simply abandon their culture and “integrate”?

We have heard similar aspirations before.

Sir John Davies wished of the Irish: “The next generation will in tongue and heart and every way else become English”?

A little earlier in Shakespeare’s time, Henry Sidney was more forceful on the issue.

In A Discourse for the Reformation of Ireland (1585), Sidney’s recommendations included that “the English tongue to be extended” and “Irish habits… be abolished”.

The desire for one culture to be entirely swallowed by another is not a desire to co-operate and co-exist, but to subdue and suppress.

The examples I have given of how the English have described and treated the Irish as a people are historical — sometimes ancient.

The examples of how we treat Travellers are contemporary. They persist to this very day. This is utterly unacceptable.

Despite hundreds of years of civil rights advances worldwide (not to mention commendable recent progress in equality within this jurisdiction), the circle of empathy has yet to be fully extended to people from our Travelling community.

At the peak of the Northern Peace Process, Ulster Unionist politician David Trimble (in his Nobel Laureate lecture) finally acknowledged that the Northern Irish state had been “a cold house” for Irish Catholics.

It is not too late for us to admit this State has been similarly unwelcoming to Irish Travellers — nor is it too late to begin to remedy this injustice.

Our society and State need to get on the right side of history fast, or — and this is not bombast or hyperbole — we forfeit any right to be proud of this nation.

Photos: From top: Traveller boys in Dublin, 1980 by Brian Palm; The aftermath of the Carrickmines halting site fire, September 10, 2015; Frankie Gaffney


Frankie Gaffney  is the author of Dublin Seven (Liberties press). Follow Frankie on twitter: @FrankieGaffney